Climbing up through darkness, I tried to remember why I had agreed to come on this trip.
Buckled roots lifting with my feet each step I took, trying to pull me back down into the ravine. Hooked teeth on vines gnawed at my pants and shirt, and anyplace there was skin exposed. If they couldn’t have all of me, they would at least keep part of me there in that ravine. Supposedly, there was a waterfall nearby, but we couldn’t find it; it was too dark. The sky was black and the trail was overgrown. We should have known better than to try climbing down the side of a mountain, surrounded by the deep pitch of night.
We had been driving for an hour up and down dark, twisting mountain roads. Before that, we spent four hours lost on country roads with cryptic and funny names. Jot-Em Down Road. Waka Mountain Highway. Our destination was only two hours from the city, but we must have circled the small Appalachian town at least twice.
The true goal was not the town itself, but rather what lay just beyond: a camp site, a waterfall; a world vastly different than the one we left earlier that day.
My best friend of eight years reaches the top first. I reach the road shortly thereafter, followed closely by our other companion. Kneeling on the road’s shoulder, he vomits three or four times. The park ranger stops running the plates of our vehicle to inquire about my sick comrade.
“Is he okay?”
“Yea. I’m just out of shape,” he answers, gasping for breath between mouthfuls of stomach acid and the various partially digested snacks he consumed during the ride.
I look up. Myriad points of light sparkle blue and red and orange and green, scattered so beautifully across the sky. The milky clouds of the galactic arms cradle all but a lonely few. But my, how brightly those lone stars shine. I am ready to launch myself off the side of the mountain into a world that seems more familiar to me than the one into which I was born. My friend always jokes that I’m not really of African origin, but descended from another world entirely. I know it to be true. I’ve never felt at home anywhere on this planet except here, in this place where the stars are always visible.
This is why I’m here: to find my way back home.
We follow the ranger back down the mountain to what he keeps referring to as a “primitive” camp site, Raven Cliff Falls. No cottages, no public restrooms, no forced group campfire sing-alongs. Just trees, a stream, and a small clearing barely large enough for our three one-man tents. Perfect. The three of us set up camp by the light of the lantern. Finished, I rest for a few minutes and eat two peanut butter sandwiches.
Drink water. Hydrate yourself. Be well.
I take a short walk around the site, try to become familiar with they way the trees look now, because I know nothing will appear the same in an hour or so. I return to the clearing and sit on a damp log. After a while, one of my friends hands me two small squares of perforated paper. One is green with a purple hippo, the other is red with some sort of shape that is indistinct in the murky light of the lantern. I put them under my tongue and waited. We were all waiting for something tht night, each in our own way. One had paper as well, while the other ate a baggie of intensely blue and powdery fungus as if it were popcorn, tossing them into his mouth and enjoying the bitter taste.
A campfire was an impossibility because everything was soggy with the rain that had fallen earlier that day. It doesn’t take long for me to realize that the forest has taken on a soft glow of its own. The closest thing I can relate it to is biolumenescence. All things green have taken on a subtle, shimmering quality. We go for a short walk with out our flashlights. The combination of a clear sky, bright stars, and the organic glow of the living matter that surrounds us gives all the light and comfort needed.
I don’t always learn anything from those types of experiences, and I feel it’s dangerous to always expect to come away with some new understanding. You may just end up forcing a “realization” that isn’t valid, or at least one that fits only that very specific time and place and circumstance. It was very enjoyable to simply be there; to simply exist and interact and watch how our movements affected everything else. It was nice to even take myself out of the picture, and see the world without my intent and action.
Allowing myself to drift drift drift away into a vivid wakeful dreaming state, one thought kept flitting across my eyes, through my mind, finally settling deep down where it could not be lost:
I have everything I need.
The following morning we went for a short hike around the campgrounds, mostly to sort ourselves before the drive back, but also because it was simply such a beautiful day. As we walked, the cool fog lifted, and filtered sunlight slanted through the trees, colored green by the canopy of leaves surrounding us. Rounding a bend, the sound of plunging water greeted our ears. We had found the waterfall that was sought so fervently the night before.
We found it. I climbed a few large rocks to get a good position halfway up the falls, and kneeled down beside the rushing stream. The water is so clear. Cupping my hands, I let the water fill my makeshift bowl and splash it on my face, neck and arms. So cold. I get another hand full and taste it. So sweet. I sit back on my haunches and let the water rush past, listening with my eyes, watching with my ears. Enjoying. Sitting. Not moving.
At that moment, I am thinking feeling only one thing.
I have everything I want.